Peter the Great - A Hero of our Time?

Lindsey Hughes reviews the controversial career of perhaps the most significant figure in Russian history.

The past in the present

In 1996 Muscovites were dismayed to see a 300 foot monument to the tercentenary of the Russian fleet arising from an island in the Moskva river not far from the Kremlin. Designed by the controversial sculptor Zurah Tsereteli and surmounted by a vast statue of Tsar Peter I of Russia astride a ship, the monument has been denounced on the grounds of excessive cost, inappropriateness (Peter hated Moscow and subordinated it to St Petersburg), lack of consultation and sheer ugliness. There have even been attempts to blow it up, apparently by Communists protesting against the proliferation of 'Tsarist' monuments in post-Soviet Moscow. Some critics have suggested that the man who commissioned the sculpture, the ambitious mayor of Moscow Yury Luzhkov, is himself anxious to be a sort of latter-day Peter the Great.

Meanwhile, visitors to the Peter-Paul Fortress in St Petersburg have been equally critical of a much smaller statue of Peter by the sculptor Mikhail Shemiakin, erected in 1991 to coincide with the restoration of' the city's original name. The seated figure exaggerates Peter's peculiar physical characteristics – unduly small head and spindly limbs on a six foot seven inch frame – to grotesque effect, in sharp contrast to the well-proportioned heroic images traditionally produced by artists. Citizens of St Petersburg tend to regard the so-called Bronze Horseman, an 18th-century statue of' Peter astride a rearing steed trampling a serpent, as a more fitting symbol of their city, for it brings to mind not only Peter's victory over the Swedes in the Great Northern War, but also his battle with the elements to create a new capital. For Peter's detractors, on the other hand, this same Horseman symbolises the cruelty of Peter's struggle with his own people, over whom he was willing to ride roughshod in pursuit of his goals.

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